I recently found an article, Transatlantic Heartburn, written by the former BBC America News anchor, Katty Kay, that identifies an international fear that we, in the U.S., don’t often encounter. It represents a perspective that is far broader than the rather insular reporting we are served up daily by the mainline American media.
Katty Kay’s reporting focuses on the perceived threat to world order posed by Donald Trump. It expands many Americans’ paranoia about what he will do to the U.S., by analyzing what his antics will also do to the rest of the world, albeit inadvertently because he doesn’t understand, or care. As a note, some of the article refers to candidates that are no longer in the presidential race, and I have taken those out.
“America’s allies are getting nervous, as the 2024 election kicks into high gear. Some European leaders have their eyes on brewing storms in the transatlantic waters.
First, America is about to turn inwards, as countries tend to do during major elections. The push to prioritise domestic voters could well lead to some, in the Republican party, campaigning on the promise of cutting U.S. support for Ukraine. That’s not something most Europeans are happy about. The former president, Donald Trump, told CNN he didn’t see the war in terms of winning or losing – a concerning statement for Ukraine’s allies who clearly do want to win. I could perhaps add here, something that Katty Kay didn’t mention, and that is Trump’s apparent love affair with Putin.
European allies made little effort to disguise their problems with Mr Trump when he was the 45th president of the US. The prospect of him being re-elected as its 47th is seen, in the words of former EU foreign policy advisor Nathalie Tocci, as “catastrophic”.
The ongoing clashes between Democrats and Republicans over the debt ceiling have rocked confidence in America’s political system. “I think Europeans are getting increasingly used to the fact that this broken system, in many ways, impacts the US’ global standing,” says Ms. Tocci.
Raising the debt ceiling to avoid America defaulting on its bills should be a routine matter of government – but partisan politics here have made it a high-wire act with potentially devastating consequences, for the US and the global economies. Even if the two parties eventually reach a deal, the chaotic process has undermined America’s reputation for competence. As one senior European official, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, phrased it: “The visuals don’t look good.”
Christine Lagarde, the head of the European Central Bank, was even more frank when she called the prospect a “major, major disaster”. The German Finance Minister, Christian Lindner, bluntly suggested American politicians just needed to grow up. When your friends are telling you to grow up, you wonder what your enemies are thinking. A battle over the debt ceiling could have global consequences.
There is consternation – “astonishment” is the word I heard – over how badly America is handling this budget round. Angus King, the Independent Senator from Maine, is aware of how it looks abroad: “America pays its bills for the debts we incur – three short years ago we had bipartisan understanding of this fact. We need to get back to that – and fast.”
If Washington can’t get this task right, anxious allies ask, what else might it be unable to handle?
The row has already directly impacted America’s national security interests. President Biden recently had to cut short his trip to Asia, in order to focus on the negotiations, skipping planned visits to Australia and Papua New. The itinerary change drew scathing comments from the Sydney Morning Herald’s Matthew Knott, who said the “snub” played straight into China’s hands.
Australia – a key US ally – had planned a meeting during Mr Biden’s trip of the so-called Quad countries (India, Japan, the US, and Australia) to discuss regional security. It’s hard not to imagine Beijing enjoying the spectacle of its regional adversaries rearranging their summit because US domestic politics got in the way.
Which gets us to perhaps the most profound source of worry among America’s European allies – a growing divide over how to best handle China. While Washington has taken an increasingly hawkish tone, Europe has a sense that it may need to forge its own path.
Europeans don’t want to annoy Washington, but they aren’t convinced either that their security or economic priorities are the same as America’s. Trade between Germany and China rose to a record level last year, solidifying China as Germany’s largest trading partner. Some European leaders are vocal about not wanting to be bullied into choosing sides.
Top US lawmakers have weighed in on Taiwan’s dispute with China, such as when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, causing condemnation from Beijing.
When he travelled to Beijing in April, accompanied by a bevy of French business leaders, President Emanuel Macron voiced that ambivalence – especially on the thorny issue of Taiwan. “The paradox would be that, overcome with panic, we believe we are just America’s followers,” he told the Politico news site, “The question Europeans need to answer … is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No.”
This divergence has led to some clashes with US politicians: “Our European allies need to make a decision. They must choose whether to stand with China or to stand alongside the United States, and we cannot allow them to continue to play both sides,” Republican Congresswoman Nancy Mace of South Carolina, told the US network NBC. As the 2024 election approaches there’s little indication either Republicans or Democrats will soften their stance on China.
American elections are always closely watched, both by adversaries and allies. The global consequences are enormous. Most allies would say they want a US that is competent, stable, and engaged. But a potentially catastrophic battle over the debt ceiling, a possible shift in the Ukraine war effort, the chance of a second tumultuous Trump presidency and differences over China don’t seem to point in that direction.”
As a comment on this article, I realize that the vast majority of the American electorate know little about the international scene, and seem to care even less, but, like it or not, we now live in a global village where everything affects everything else. I can only hope that America’s increasingly insular and myopic approach, plus the real threat of Donald Trump, to the world’s future, isn’t permanent. The results, to again quote the former EU foreign policy advisor Nathalie Tocci, will be “catastrophic” if it is.